Getting Lost in Chile’s Brand New National Park

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Wild Guanacos (Lama guanicoe) at the Chacabuco Valley, Parque Patagonia, AysŽn Region, Chile. All Photos by Yadid Levy


It was the first day of our 90-mile attempt to cross the Jeinimeni Mountains in Chile. We’d been hiking steadily uphill for hours, toward a tiny creek that was clearly marked on our map. We figured on filling water bottles there, then cranking out a few more miles before making camp. But we were still wandering around in beech trees searching for that little creek when the sun set behind snowcapped peaks and the forest filled with shadows.

That’s when Christian Santelices, a professional mountain guide with diesel engines for legs, stopped ahead and said, “Ah… boys? You better come look at this.”

“You found the creek?” I asked.

Santelices was silent. Then he said, “Just come look, OK?”

Our goal was to make what may have been the first complete north-to-south traverse of Patagonia Park—the newly accessible, Yosemite-size wilderness of mountains, rivers, and grasslands preserved for public use by the founder of The North Face, Doug Tompkins, and his wife, Kristine. Earlier that morning, Santelices and I, along with a California climber and BASE jumper named Chris McNamara, had gotten out of a truck on Highway 265, a one-lane dirt road in the middle of nowhere. With five days of food, plus camping and foul-weather gear, ice axes, and lightweight crampons that fit over trail-running shoes, we figured on following a big river called the Rio Avilés to its headwaters among glaciers, then into the mountain valleys beyond, all the while bagging some easy first ascents on the Jeinimenis’ unnamed peaks. The plan was to meet a fourth friend at another road for resupply—although he’d been hard to reach recently—and then cross a smaller mountain range to the giant Lago Cochrane at the park’s southern boundary.

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Hikers crossing a Suspension bridge, Chacabuco Valley, Parque Patagonia, AysŽn Region, Chile.

Those first few miles of hiking had been easy enough, though I still had to push in order to keep up with Santelices and McNamara. I couldn’t help offering an excuse for my slow pace, telling them that I’d mostly been swimming for exercise to get ready for the West Coast surf season.

Then those cattle trails faded, the Rio Avilés disappeared into a deep canyon to our left, and night began to fall. We needed to find that damn creek.

“Trust me on this,” Santelices said. “Come take a look.”

I stepped up to his side. Right at our feet, perpendicular to our route in the shadowy gloom, was a river gorge 100 feet across and 200 feet deep—sheer rock walls plummeting into a raging whitewater torrent. Falling in would mean certain death.

“Sweet,” McNamara said.

“Right?” Santelices replied.

I held up our map, shined my headlamp on it. I pointed to a skinny blue line of a kind that cartographers use to represent gentle streams. “So,” I asked, “we’re thinking that little blue line refers to this death gorge?”

Santelices nodded. Then we all shuffled a little closer to the edge to look down. The view was terrifying.

Before we left, McNamara had loaded his iPhone with a GPS map. He turned on his phone and opened the app only to find that it was even worse than our paper map.

We decided to follow the gorge downslope in hopes of finding a place where the canyon was less steep. Our headlamps set on high beam, we marched fast through the trees and soon came to a junction where the death-gorge cataract dumped into the much bigger Rio Avilés. In the soft light of the rising moon, we dropped our packs and shuffled onto a rocky ledge. 

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Hiker at Chacabuco Valley with a view over the Jeinimeni Mountain peaks, Parque Patagonia, AysŽn Region, Chile.

The water’s smooth surface meant it was deep. The opposite bank looked to be 50 feet away. The best option would be to have one of us strip naked, tie a rope around his waist, and leap into the current. The river was fed by glaciers fewer than 10 miles uphill, so the water had to be around 34 degrees, cold enough to kill a man in a half-hour. Whoever jumped in would have to swim all out to reach the other bank fast. If he missed and got swept down-river, he would be in mortal danger with no chance of rescue. If he did reach the other bank, we could then tie that rope to trees on both sides to create a safety line for the other guys to follow across.

“Hey, Dan,” Santelices said. “Weren’t you just telling us you’re in great swimming shape?”

In a weird way, this was exactly what I was looking for. I’ve been hiking and climbing in U.S. national parks all my life, but always among peaks and lakes and creeks mapped and named 100 years ago. But almost no one has explored Patagonia Park. For that, we can thank Doug and Kristine Tompkins. The couple spent 25 years buying up vast swaths of wild country in Chile and Argentina, then turned them into nature sanctuaries and negotiated with national governments to preserve the rugged, largely untracked country as parks. For Patagonia Park, they bought a 170,500-acre cattle ranch sandwiched between two preexisting reserves used for grazing.

Doug Tompkins died in a 2015 kayaking accident in Lago General Carrera, near where we’d started walking, but Kristine soldiered on. Earlier this year, she reached an agreement with Chile to add 10 million new acres to the country’s park system, including 1 million donated by the couple. As part of that agreement, that big cattle ranch will get combined with those two existing reserves to create a park of more than 720,000 acres—populated with hawks, condors, mountain lions, endangered guemal deer, and big herds of rare camel-like animals called guanacos. While the transfer is not official, the entire parcel is open for adventure.

Conservacion Patagonica, a nonprofit founded by the Tompkinses, has begun building a classic national park infrastructure, including an upscale lodge and restaurant, two drive-in campgrounds, and some maintained trails for day hiking. Nonetheless, most of Patagonia Park remains wild—and poorly documented.

Santelices has family in Chile, so he was already there. McNamara and I flew from Miami to Santiago, then hopped on a commuter flight south to a small city called Coy- haique. Santelices picked us up at the airport in a rented 4×4. We loaded up on food and booze and headed south on Route 7, the Carretera Austral. An adventure in itself, the road is mostly a dirt-and-gravel one-laner for 770 miles along the mountainous spine of the country. We bounced along for eight hours, passing immense snowcapped mountains and giant untouched valleys drained by rivers that poured clear and wild into fjords on the Pacific coast. Somewhere around the halfway mark, Santelices realized that he’d forgotten to buy the four canisters of cooking gas we needed, so we pulled into a dusty little Patagonia town, bought the only pint-size propane canister we could find, and made one more unsuccessful attempt to reach this guy named Yadid, who was supposed to deliver our resupply. Then we drove another 100 miles through landscape as grand as anything in Wyoming or Colorado.

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Hikers at the Chacabuco Valley with a view over Lago Cochrane, Parque Patagonia, AysŽn Region, Chile.

At midnight, we reached a snug little inn called Konaiken, where Santelices knew the owner. Early the next morning, we did a last gear check: two tents, Gore-Tex tops and bottoms, down sleeping bags, thermal underwear, two pairs of wool socks each, and that single canister of cooking gas. The inn’s owner drove us along the south shore of Lago General Carrera and dropped us at our starting point. From there, we hiked up to the Rio Avilés—until we bumped into that death gorge, hiked back downhill, and developed that strategy for my big swim.

I barely slept that night. Fortunately, in the morning, Santelices presented an alternative plan. He’d found a wider spot downstream, he said, and was almost certain the fast-moving water wasn’t more than waist-deep. I wanted to kiss him.

We stuffed our pants, boots, and mission-critical dry socks into our packs, put on river sandals, and took a last glance downriver to where all that water thundered into another tight canyon. Then we formed a single-file line facing up current with our backpack belts unbuckled so we could escape them if we fell. Santelices took pole position, breaking the current with those tree-trunk legs, while I supported him by leaning against his back and McNamara supported me by leaning against my back. Like a pink-skinned six-legged caterpillar, we inched along. The water was biting cold at knee-deep, painfully cold at midthigh, and frighteningly frigid as it reached our groins and the current tugged hard and rocks rolled under our feet.

It took 10 long minutes to reach the other side, where we pulled on pants and boots. We’d covered only eight miles the day before, so we now had to go 18 to stay on schedule. We charged fast up a mountainside into brush so dense and thick that it took an hour’s worth of all-out, fistfight-physical effort to go a half-mile. Then we reached a crest and saw one of those nameless, unclimbed peaks we’d figured on sprinting up: a towering colossus of thousand-foot cliffs, blue ice fields, and glaciers streaked with crevasses.

Again, I took out the map. I pointed to a beautifully illustrated mountain that looked gentle and accessible. “So we’re thinking that K2-looking peak over there is this thing?”

“Yeah, I don’t know about that map.” Santelices said. “McNamara, what does your GPS show?”

The answer was pretty much nothing. My mind abandoned dreams of glory on virgin peaks and turned toward something more basic: getting through this in one piece.

Awakening to a cloudy sky the next morning, I found myself thinking about search-and-rescue teams—specifically, how there probably wasn’t one for hundreds of miles and we had no way to contact them regardless. A heavy, wet snow started falling. Instead of logging big mileage, we looked for shelter. Late in the afternoon, with rainwater pouring off our jackets, we came to an amphitheater of 500-foot cliffs. A living glacier hung off the top in great toothlike blocks. A booming waterfall plunged straight from the ice into a big lake of milky, light-blue water.

In trees on the far side, we saw something peculiar: a pretty little cabin with a chimney, way the hell out there without so much as a trail coming or going. McNamara climbed in through a window and let us in. Inside was bone dry. We cooked soup, drank hot tea, huddled in our sleeping bags, and took yet another look at that worrisome map. We calculated that we somehow had to cover 30 miles in two days to rendezvous with our resupply.

An interesting thing about losing faith in your map and falling far behind on your mileage is that it forces you to look long and hard at your gear and supplies. When we woke to steady downpour the next morning, I found a ziplock bag and stuffed it with my only pair of dry wool socks and my one spare thermal top, figuring that stuff might end up being the difference between life and death. After coffee and cereal, we carefully layered on thermals and zipped up rain gear and started marching through the storm.

We hadn’t walked 100 yards before we reached a creek 30 feet wide. We sat down and took off our boots, socks, thermal bottoms, and rain pants, put on river sandals, and waded thigh-deep through glacier meltwater again—then we put all that back on and tried charging forward fast to recover a little warmth, only to reach yet another unavoidable crossing. After the third of these, we tried staying in the forest along the left bank. That led us into brush so dense that we could make progress only by putting on gloves and pushing our way through thorny thickets that tore holes in our rain gear.

We fought our way until a spot where the river flooded the forest all around. At that point, we stopped worrying about pants and socks and plunged in, walking in boots and pants through hip-deep, ice-cold glacier melt among the trees, plunging in and out of river after river, boots filled to sloshing.

Late in the afternoon, having gone only eight miles, we reached the intersection of three wildly beautiful glacial valleys. One of them, at least according to that dumb map, had a maintained trail along the far side. With a clear sense that I couldn’t keep this up much longer, I splashed across another tributary and found a pink stake in the ground—it clearly had been placed by somebody surveying a trail.

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Man navigates at the Chacabuco Valley, Parque Patagonia, AysŽn Region, Chile.

That led to another stake and finally to a hand-lettered sign that said “Camping Valley Hermosa.” Nearby, in the trees, we found a wooden shack so run down and filthy that it could have been the setting for a horror flick. Weirder still, a thin line of smoke rose from the metal chimney. At the door, we called out “Hello,” got no reply, and peered inside.

The shack was empty, the roof was but a few panels of corrugated tin, and the floor was black dirt. In one corner, a raised metal fireplace had live embers, as if someone had just left. It was only two in the afternoon and, in theory, we had to cover 10 more miles that day. But after stoking those embers and huddling close to the flame, we realized just how cold we were and just how foolish it would be to walk hours more in that cold downpour through still more rivers and then pitch tents without a fire or any way to dry off. So we let an hour slip by and then another. We decided to spend the night and hope for the best in the morning. All our clothing was wet, we had exactly one day of food left, and there couldn’t have been more than a few minutes of fuel in that canister. If the storm kept up, the rivers stayed deep and frequent, and bushwhacking continued to be a combat sport, we would be in serious trouble.

The following day started out grim, with more river crossings in the rain. But then, miraculously, the sky cleared, and an actual trail emerged. Hour after hour, we half-ran downhill into ever-warmer climes until we’d stripped to T-shirts and sunglasses. Late in the day, we crossed the immense Chacabuco Valley, which forms the core of the Tompkins cattle ranch. With the fences and ranch buildings gone and the grasslands rebounding from years of overgrazing, it felt like walking across the Serengeti. 

We got a little tense when Yadid wasn’t at our rendezvous point with extra food. But soon enough, he did arrive, with not only food but a temptation we could not refuse: Just 20 minutes away, he said, was an elegant stone lodge and restaurant with green watered lawns, and a grass airstrip where Doug Tompkins’ personal plane still sat where he’d parked it before he died kayaking in Lago General Carrera.

I’ll let others decide whether that little detour amounts to cheating, but I will never regret that night’s steak and red wine, the high-thread-count sheets and fluffy down pillows, or breakfast on the veranda before Yadid drove us back out to our route. Nor will I ever begrudge the lodge manager who, upon hearing the route we’d just taken using only the park’s official brochure map, burst out laughing and told us that map was never intended to be used for such a purpose.

To the contrary, the expedition’s finale was a warm and soothing meander through grassy hills and an immense lake so clean that the water was perfectly safe to drink. We camped wherever we wanted, typically on soft pine needles under big trees, and we ended our walk in sight of the beautiful Lago Cochrane at a snug little home occupied by a Chilean shepherd who worked as wildlife manager for the park. He invited us into his living room, made a big mug of the bitter Chilean green tea known as maté, and passed the cup around.

Then our ride came and we drove north again toward Coyhaique and our flights home. Bouncing back along that dirt road, I thought again about the relationship between uncertainty and adventure. The trip would have been grueling even with flawless GPS. But our ridiculous map had actually served an important purpose: It made every new vista feel like a discovery, every challenge a surprise. It forced us to push ourselves much further than we intended—and discover that we could have pushed ourselves further still and come out fine. Probably.

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Portrait of Gaucho Daniel, Parque Patagonia, AysŽn Region, Chile.